Why I Hope Schools Make Time For Play

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My son will start kindergarten next year, so I’ve been thinking a lot about education—what his experience will be and what my own was. The question that keeps coming to mind is:

Will there be any room for play?

 

It gets me down when I hear about changes happening in schools that discourage play. Changes like cutting recess, reducing arts programs and P.E., and even implementing the Common Core Standards. I’m no expert on Common Core. Maybe it’s going to be the thing that takes our kids up to the next level, academically speaking. All I can think about when I see stories in the media is: here comes more testing and more rigidity in curriculum.

 

Play Is Bigger Than Free Time

 

When I think about wanting my son to have room to play in school, I’m not just talking about breaks during the day. Or about having time to run around outside and burn off energy (though I do believe that’s important). I’m talking about play as exploration. As a way to respond to something that sparks one’s interest and investigate that area more deeply, whatever that  area may be, from science to math to history to art.

In October, The Atlantic published an article about the importance of daydreaming, which proposed that daydreaming is not just idle time. It’s a complex neurological process that has real benefits, everything from reducing stress and anxiety, to increasing self-awareness, to promoting creative incubation. I see daydreaming as mental exploration. Mental play. When kids daydream, they have complete autonomy to explore whatever thoughts interest them.

I see exploratory play as an external parallel for daydreaming, and I want my kids to have a chance to engage in it. A chance to actively pursue their interests with a degree of autonomy. A chance to play at school to learn, not just to take a break.

(MORE: Why Kids Play Less Now Than 40 Years Ago)

 

Playing at Self-Directed Learning

 

When I think back to my own educational experiences, the ones that stay with me the most—that shaped me the most into who I am—are the ones where I had a say in what I learned. College presents the most opportunity to do this, offering students the chance to choose a degree program and classes. Yet many students struggle to figure out what they want to do. They go on to earn a degree only to find it’s not something they really enjoy or find fulfillment doing.

I wonder if kids had more opportunity to explore their interests at an earlier age if they would find this process easier as a teenager and adult.

In high school, I took a class that gave me immense freedom. Essentially, we chose a subject to research in great depth for an entire semester and then gave a 30-minute presentation to a panel of six judges at the end. On paper it sounds awful, but I found the class liberating. I was actually allowed to use time at school to explore something I was interested in, and my enthusiasm for delving deep into the subject was almost limitless. Today, I still look back on that class as one of the defining times of my life.

As kids grow up, they get more opportunities for this type of exploration. But I don’t think we give younger kids enough credit all the time. We think as adults that we can and should control most aspects of their lives, including their education. I wonder, though, why this exploratory self-directed learning can’t start happening at an earlier age? Of course kids need coaching and guidance, but what if we actually gave them the chance to learn what they want to learn?

Whenever my son asks me about something that I don’t know the answer to, we look it up together on a website or try to find a book at the library that deals with the subject. We’ve done it often enough that he will periodically ask me if we can go to the library and see if they have a book about something he’s interested in. He doesn’t realize he’s learning. He thinks he’s just playing. Even in preschool, he already associates the idea of “learning” with doing something someone else wants him to do that might be boring.

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Of course I believe everyone needs a basic education, and we can’t neglect critical skills. But I hope that in addition to those basics, we will still find time for kids to play at school. To mentally and actively explore things that interest them, and even occasionally ask them what they would like to learn.

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